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Acad Emerg Med. 2006 Dec;13(12):1328-32. Epub 2006 Aug 31.

Ethics seminars: withdrawal of treatment in the emergency department--when and how?

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Division of Emergency Medicine, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver, CO, USA.


Although increasing discussion has occurred within emergency medicine about indications for withholding cardiac life support and other resuscitative interventions, emergency physicians (EPs) may be less familiar with the ethical, legal, and practical issues surrounding withdrawal of life support that has already been initiated. Both physicians and out-of-hospital personnel must act rapidly in critical situations and must assume that the patient has the desire to be resuscitated, unless clear evidence exists to the contrary. Often, only after initial life-saving actions have stabilized the patient is there time to reflect and determine a patient's desires regarding such interventions. When the EP can clearly discern a patient's previously stated wishes during the emergency department (ED) stay, these wishes should be honored in the ED. Respecting a patient's request to avoid unwanted, invasive treatments near death may involve withdrawing interventions that could not be withheld during the first few minutes of care. In this article, the authors use a case of out-of-hospital stabilization of a patient as a springboard to review the ethical and legal framework for withdrawal of life-sustaining care, as well as the practical issues involved with withdrawal of such care in the ED.

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